This sounds innocuous enough, but it's actually really crappy for three reasons.
1) It completely misses the point of the song. I have no problem with singers changing around the song they are covering. Hell, I do it in my band. I don't even necessarily have a problem with changing it around in a way that changes the meaning (my band used to do a version of Why Don't You Do Right that completely changed up the perspective).
But what I do have a problem is subtly changing the meaning and trying to pass it off as if it's still the same as the original. I think it's clear that Cee Lo felt those words still conveyed the message of the song. But they don't.
This is not because Imagine is an anti-religious song; it's because the entire point of the song is to challenge the very idea that we need these institutions in the first place. As a reminder, the verse that Cee Lo mangled begins like this:
Imagine there's no country
It isn't hard to do
It doesn't say, "Imagine we fixed our country." It dares the listener to imagine there is no country to begin with. It compels us to "imagine" a world that is radically different in ways that most of us -- myself included -- take for granted.
Cee Lo's sanitized softball version greatly diminishes that challenge. Instead of asking the listener to question their most basic assumptions about how a society can work, instead it just lets us close our eyes and think of puppies and happy things. Boo.
2) We know people would have been offended if he hadn't changed the words; why aren't they offended anyway? I'm sorry, but I can't imagine that the same folks who would be apt to write angry letters over the "no religion" line would be particularly cool about me saying, "Hey, the United States shouldn't even exist." And yet, that's exactly what the first part of that verse says, isn't it?
The thing is, when it comes to "Imagine there's no country", most people "get it". They understand their assumptions are being deliberately challenged, and even if they disagree, they don't take it as a personal affront.
But as we well know, the hot button of religion has a tendency to blind people to things like this. Instead of being provoked to think deeply, they are provoked to angry shouting. And that's just crappy.
3) "All religion's true" sounds like a nice sentiment -- until you think about it for five seconds. And I got just three words for ya on that topic: Westboro Baptist Church.
Of course I know it's not supposed to be literally saying that, it's just supposed to be a bit of ecumenical mushy-headedness. But this is exactly the kind of thinking that gives intolerance a free pass, as long as it's not too extreme, and you couch it in terms of faith.
The Phelpses may be a pithy counter-example, but of course we know Cee Lo didn't mean them. Yet what about those whose faith drives them to vote against marriage equality? What about Muslims in some parts of the world engaging in female genital mutilation? What about the Catholic church (and many others) not allowing women in leadership roles? Did Cee Lo implicitly mean to exclude all of those beliefs too? It seems unlikely.
It might seem like a warm fuzzy group hug, but there's a nasty side to making such a blanket statement.
Anyway, lots of outrage against Cee Lo on Twitter. No surprise. I knew he was going to change the words... As soon as he started singing, I said, "There's no way he'll do the 'no religion' line." And I was right. Sigh.